Location: Medfield, Norfolk, Massachusetts, United States
A complete scan of this source is found at https://archive.org/details/medfield-meeting-house-images
PDF transcription and index of names is attached here.
The Meeting House in Medfield, Massachusetts
Meeting houses in colonial (Puritan) America were the center of communal life. They were simple buildings used both for worship and conducting town business; the historian of Medfield, William TIlden, tells us that, by statute, none of the early dwellings in Medfield could be further than a half mile from the meeting house.
The first meeting house in Medfield was constructed in 1653. It was a log building with a thatched roof that quickly became inadequate as the town and its needs grew. A second meeting house was built in 1706, but it lacked a chimney and was unheated. Finally, in 1786, the town voted to construct a third meeting house, the "new" meeting house. It was raised in 1789 and is still in use today as a Unitarian Universalist Church.
During the planning and construction of the new meeting house, someone involved in the project kept an account book that detailed its income and expenses, and this manuscript came into the possession of Squire John Baxter of Medfield. This account book has been passed down through the generations of the Baxter family without landing in the collections of a historical society or a museum. It is a bound leather manuscript with handwritten entries and is the subject of this page.
Who was John Baxter
Squire John Baxter was a man of local importance and influence in Medfield, County Norfolk, Massachusetts. He was a Representative in the Legislature and a military officer during the war of the Revolution. He was remembered as an able and impartial magistrate, but his reputation as a peacemaker was particularly noted. It was said that his successful efforts in reconciling contending parties as arbitrator, would long be remembered.
It is not certain who actually authored the manuscript. What is certain is that it passed into the possession of Squire John Baxter (1746-1832), where it became part of his personal papers and estate inherited by his daughter and sole heir, Sarah (Baxter) Bosworth (1785-abt.1866). She passed the Baxter papers on to her daughter, Mary Baxter (Bosworth) Hamant (1812-1844), who passed them on to her daughter, Mary Baxter (Hamant) Harwood (1843-1891), which marked the end of that branch of the Baxter line. The Baxter estate was then passed on to the heirs of Mary's husband, Willard Harwood (abt.1836-abt.1916): His son Harry Adams Harwood (1870-1939), his son Sumner Harwood (1906-1971), his son Baxter Harwood (1934-2020), who was my father, and then to me, Paul Harwood, on my father's death in 2020.
Given that the manuscript may contain useful genealogical information for any person who traces their descent from the occupants of Medfield, County Norfolk, Massachusetts in the period 1789 to 1791, I have elected to make its contents freely available. Together with the cheerful and unflagging assistance of fellow WikiTreer Peter Cogan I have scanned the pages of the manuscript and placed them on archive.org (The Internet Archive). We are also working to transcribe the contents and hope to make that available as a pdf here on WikiTree for the use of anyone who might have an interest in the history of Medfield, Massachusetts, or its inhabitants around the turn of the 19th century.
The Structure of the Manuscript
The manuscript covers distinct phases in the financing of the new meeting house. The first major portion describes the sale of pews to raise money. It begins with pew price information. The pew prices ranged from £20 2sh for pew number 1 down to £8 18sh for pews 54-57. Interestingly, the final pew, number 58, had an increased price of £9 4sh. Seventeen pews were also sold in the upstairs gallery, ranging in price from £10 down to £3 3sh. Overall, the sale of pews brought in £923 4sh; there is an unexplained addition of £10, so the total funding available for construction was £933 and 4 shillings. The cash was not on hand, though: A good number of pages after the pew subscription list are the records of payments for the pews, sometimes taking several years for the total amount pledged to be realized. This meant that the town had to borrow against the unrealized pledges, as well as against the shortfall between pledged cash and expenses for construction.
The second major portion of the manuscript is an accounting of expenditures for labor and material for the actual construction. Tilden gives us the following description of the raising of the meeting house
"Bustling days in the village were those when the 'raising' took place. People came from all the surrounding towns; the streets were lined with teams; booths and bakers' carts supplied the hungry and thirsty crowd which came to witness the great sight. The frame was immensely heavy, and a strong force of men was required to place it in position. Owing to the want of suitable appliances, or of sufficient daring on the part of the men, the higher parts of the building baffled their efforts. In this emergency, Captain Downs, of Walpole, was called to their aid. By the help of his experience and courage, accompanied, it is said, with considerable rough language on his part, the work was completed on the third day.
"The supplies for the raising consisted of four barrels of beer, twenty-five gallons of West India rum, thirty gallons of New England rum, thirty-four pounds of loaf sugar, twenty-five pounds of brown sugar, and four hundred and sixty-five lemons. Joseph Clark and Amos Plimpton furnished seven hundred and fifteen meals for the men that assisted at the raising, at 6d. a meal. These bills were all paid by the town."
Since the income raised by sale of the pews stretched into the early 1790s, so did repayment for the cost of materials and labor. Many of the payment entries are dated 1791 and 1792, though the meeting house was physically raised in 1789.
The final part of the manuscript describes repayment of notes taken out by the town to finance construction, as well as income from the sale of remnant building materials, including materials from the older meeting house that hadn't been re-used, and a subscription for a "pulpit cushion and trimmings" that was subscribed entirely by the women of the town.
In the middle of the manuscript, a number of pages have been cut out. The remnant stubs are clearly visible in the scan of the manuscript. It's not known who removed the pages, or when, or why.
A Note on the Currency
Since most of the currency transactions in the manuscript precede the issuance of the US dollar in 1792, they are written in the then-used British system of farthings, pence, shillings, and pounds. For help in understanding the arithmetic used in the bookkeeping, here is a quick summary of the currency:
4 farthings make one pence or penny
12 pence make one shilling
20 shillings make one pound
This should explain the otherwise puzzling arithmetic, such as this example from pg 16:
|Sept 28 1789||Cr by Materials||£1-12-4-1|
|Credit by Boarding Workman||£3-17-7-3|
(The table structure is used here for WikiTree formatting and legibility and does not appear in the manuscript.)
Credit and Acknowledgment
We are making these records and copies of these records freely available at The Internet Archive and they can be accessed by those with a genealogical interest in the records. We have also undertaken a transcription of the manuscript and plan to make it available on this page when complete. We hope that proper attribution and credit will be given for the work we've invested in making this resource available. It would also be appreciated if Wikitree could be credited for hosting this page.
Squire John Baxter (1746-1832), Medfield, County of Norfolk, Massachusetts, Medfield Massachusetts Meeting House Finances 1787 to 1793. (The original manuscript is in the possession of Paul Harwood and is used with permission.) The manuscript has been scanned and is available to be viewed at https://archive.org/details/medfield-meeting-house-images.
See attached PDF document for a full transcription of the document which includes an Index at the end of the document ( page 155).